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Is North Korea really winning the soft power Olympics?

Maybe Mike Pence had a bad soft power weekend.

Vice President Pence watches the joint march by the athletes of both Koreas at the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, as South Korean President Moon Jae-in, front row, left,  claps, and North Korea’s nominal head of state, Kim Yong Nam, waves while standing next to Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. (Yonhap/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Many Americans spent the weekend watching the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. A few other Americans spend the weekend getting very, very angry at the Western media coverage of the politics of the Olympics.

Were they right to be outraged? If you read the headlines and the tweets about the headlines, then the answer is an unqualified yes. Consider the following:

This was all bad enough for BuzzFeed to astringently point out about Kim Yo Jong, “Kim Jong Un’s sister is not your New Fave Shade Queen. She’s a garbage monster. What the hell is wrong with you people?”

It is important, however, to parse out the distinction between wanting something not to be true and ascertaining whether something is actually not true. This is particularly hard to do when it comes to concepts such as “soft power” or “diplomatic victory.” Analyzing this is all about perception, and perceptions about perceptions.

Once you get past the annoying headlines, the actual stories painted a mixed picture. CNN’s story, for example, caught most of the critical flak, but it had several paragraphs relaying ordinary Koreans’ decidedly mixed feelings about the DPRK charm offensive.

The other stories were more focused on comparing how well the U.S. delegation, led by Vice President Pence, performed relative to the DPRK’s delegation. The United States has squandered a lot of its soft power in President Trump’s first year in office, which made things challenging for Pence. On the other hand, North Korea is a near-totalitarian state that starves its population to threaten its neighbors with nuclear annihilation. So you have to think that Pence had a fighting chance to do well in this competition.

While in South Korea, the DPRK delegation participated in diplomatic niceties with the South Korean government, most notably by extending an invitation to South Korean President Moon Jae-in to Pyongyang for a summit with North Korean despot Kim Jong Un. Meanwhile, Pence made headlines for doing three things: warning about the horrors of the North Korea regime, not standing when the unified Korean team entered the Olympic Stadium for the Opening Ceremonies and largely snubbing the main reception dinner.

The weekend coverage was chock full of quotes from expert analysts about how this played diplomatically. See whether you can spot the pattern. First, from Soyoung Kim and James Pearson of Reuters:

  • “ ‘North Korea clearly appears to be winning the gold,’ said Kim Sung-han, who served as Korea’s vice foreign minister in 2012-2013 and who now teaches at Seoul’s Korea University. ‘Its delegation and athletes are getting all the spotlight, and Kim Jong Un’s sister is showing elegant smiles before the South Korean public and the world. Even for a moment, it appears to be a normal state.’ ”
  • “ ‘This development could have been anticipated, but for Japan it’s a nightmare scenario,’ said Takashi Kawakami, a professor of international politics at Takushoku University in Tokyo. ‘North Korea is skillfully driving a wedge between the U.S., Japan and South Korea.’ ”
  • “Douglas Paal, a former senior U.S. diplomat under previous Republican administrations, said North Korea held the propaganda edge for now because, ‘It’s tough not to get caught up in the emotions of an Olympics event.’ But he said it would be harder for Moon to keep up momentum after U.S. and Japanese allies and South Korean conservatives remind him of what is at stake in the North Korean nuclear threat.”

From the New York Times story by Motoko Rich and Choe Sang-Hun:

  • “Mr. Pence is playing ‘right into North Korea’s hands by making it look like the U.S. is straying from its ally and actively undermining efforts for inter-Korean relations,’ said Mintaro Oba, a former diplomat at the State Department specializing in the Koreas, who now works as a speechwriter in Washington. Ms. Kim, on the other hand, ‘is a very effective tip of the spear for the North Korean charm offensive,’ Mr. Oba said.”

  • “ ‘I think it would have been really helpful to the conversation of denuclearization for the Pences to have appreciated the effort put into bringing team unified Korea into the stadium,’ said Alexis Dudden, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut. ‘And it wouldn’t have lessened the American position.’ She added, ‘The fact that he and Mrs. Pence didn’t stand when the unified team came in was a new low in a bullying type of American diplomacy.’ ”

  • “For Mr. Pence’s supporters, ‘I think the hard-line wing of the United States thinks he did a fine job,’ said David C. Kang, director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California.”

And finally, from the AP’s Zeke Miller and Matthew Pennington:

  • “‘The Koreans will think it’s a mood kill,’ said Frank Jannuzi, an expert on East Asia at the Mansfield Foundation in Washington. He criticized the Trump administration for straining too hard to signal disgust of Kim Jong Un’s government. ‘The grievances that the world has about North Korea are very legitimate. But the Olympic moment that President Moon is trying to generate here is not a time to nurse those grievances,’ Jannuzi said. ‘It’s a time to focus on messages of reconciliation and peace.’”
  • “‘It’s not a complete disaster,’ said James Schoff, former senior Pentagon adviser for East Asia policy…. ‘The fact that’s become the narrative is due in part to things that he’s said and his body language,’ Schoff said.”

So the most favorable expert assessments were, “this will play well to Pence’s base” and “it wasn’t a complete disaster.” This is, how you say, not good.

There are one of two conclusions that you can draw from this panoply of quotes:

  1. The mainstream media is so biased against the Trump administration that they spanned the globe to find the most critical expert opinions possible; or
  2. Pence had a weak hand but did not play it well, and his supporters are shooting the messengers.

Pence’s aides defended the bad optics to the media. The Washington Examiner’s Gabby Morrongiello reported that one aide explained, “I just don’t think you talk geopolitics over speed skating.” Which is odd, because the vice president made news on his way home by telling my Post colleague Josh Rogin that he did that very thing:

Vice President Pence, in an interview aboard Air Force Two on the way home from the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, told me that in his two substantive conversations with South Korean President Moon Jae-in during his trip, the United States and South Korea agreed on terms for further engagement with North Korea — first by the South Koreans and potentially with the United States soon thereafter.
The frame for the still-nascent diplomatic path forward is this: The United States and its allies will not stop imposing steep and escalating costs on the Kim Jong Un regime until it takes clear steps toward denuclearization. But the Trump administration is now willing to sit down and talk with the regime while that pressure campaign is ongoing. …
Pence and Moon worked this out during their bilateral meeting Thursday at the Blue House and their joint viewing of speedskating heats in PyeongChang on Saturday evening.

Here’s more from Rogin on CNN:

This subtle shift in the Trump administration’s position could go some way toward correcting the soft power shortfall on display in PyeongChang. On the other hand, as Rogin makes clear, there are many, many ways in which this shift will not lead to “talks about talks,” much less actual talks.

Still, after a weekend of the United States appearing to be wrong-footed, it is nice to see some U.S. diplomatic effort change the narrative, for even a day.

The Olympics last two weeks. Let’s see where things stand by the end of these Games. But while administration defenders may be outraged about what they view as biased news coverage, it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that Mike Pence had a bad weekend.